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Is a Warm and Demanding Classroom Even Possible?

By Steve Saville

As teachers reading Russell Bishop's wise words, we long to embed ourselves as ‘North East’ teachers; creating whānau type relationships in our classrooms where the environment is both ‘warm and demanding’.

As teachers reading about learner agency, growth mindsets, intrinsic motivation, we long to provide learning experiences that motivate our students; developing independent, self managing learners who pursue knowledge with drive, compassion and joy.

As teachers reading about students completing passion projects using approaches such as PBL and UDL, we long for our learners to pursue learning that interests them; driven by their passions with excitement and vigor.

As teachers, we long to stand in classrooms where our learners do more than SURVIVE - they THRIVE.

A beautiful endgame, but the path to get from ‘here to there’ is complex, unpredictable, intricate, time and place dependent and, all too often, ambiguous…. I could go on - and I won't even mention a global pandemic thrown into the mix (oops I just did).

So, is any of this actually possible?

Or is it a utopian educational vision that will always remain just out of our reach?

Is it realistic and attainable?

If so, how do we get there?

I don't believe there will ever be a universal road map to this educational Narnia. More likely we will be Alice, wandering through Wonderland encountering the weird and the whimsical on our way.


In my current position as a consultant I have the privilege of visiting many classes in many schools and sometimes, as the visitor, you catch a glimpse of what a classroom can look and feel like when safe and warm, yet demanding and collaborative. I had one of these experiences last week.

Disclaimer #1

The school in this tale is a small school that deliberately keeps small (under 25 students) and yes, that is no doubt a factor. It is a South Auckland based school, serving a diverse population from predominantly low socio economic homes.

I was in a math class observing a Year 9 class and a Year 7 class. Both were working on, what I would describe as, challenging math (I was having to focus to keep up).

These were classes where collaboration, true collaboration, seemed a natural process.

When a confident learner was asked to show the workings for a problem on the white board he bounded to the front of the room and then suddenly lost confidence and got a bit stuck. The class responded offering assistance, encouragement and suggestions. He solved the problem to applause from his peers as they congratulated him. The success was a combined one, the glory shared. Glory achieved through collaboration and a strong desire to not see one of the team struggle.

On a smaller scale I sat next to two Year 7 boys, one was struggling with the work set. The student sitting next to him quietly explained the process with dogged persistence and patience. The struggling learner was coached through the roadblock. The teacher checked once that they were ok to work together then walked away, returning a few moments later to listen - without interrupting - eventually, she made a suggestion that maybe if they created a visual that might help confirm mastery. Part of the boys coaching conversation went like this:

“Imagine if we were at a party and there were seven of us v, w, x, y, z, you and me and we had a birthday cake to eat, would we all get a big or a smaller piece then if….”

The conversation was gentle, natural and persistent, no one was going anywhere until this obstacle was cleared, the teacher watched and checked - but only at the very end did she intervene and then only to extend.

Beside me in the Year 9 class I heard a student mutter, “It's not working out, but I'm not stopping until I've finished this and solved it.”

As she was staring at her long and complex “working out'' in her book, I could feel her frustration grow. Then the teacher realized that she had made a mistake and the problem she had set was, in fact, impossible to solve. She told the class that she had made a mistake. The class were not annoyed at all, they were actually relieved that this was the reason why they were frustrated in their attempts to solve the equation. There was relief. This was a learning environment where making mistakes was natural and almost expected. No shame in making mistakes, they happen, let's learn and rectify, and then move on…together.

It appeared that these classes were enjoying math, enjoying hard work, and keen to ensure that through collaboration there was a collective success.

I asked the student sitting next to me in the Year 9 class if the class was always like this. She seemed quite surprised by my question, “This is how we are, this is just us,” was her response.

This was a class that, when I asked individuals specific questions, classified the work as hard (but good hard) in the words of one girl, “ Brain work, brain thinking, hard, but it's good to be challenged, good to solve problems.”

Interestingly, the students questioned universally described their learning in this class as also being fun.

Warm and demanding, hard but fun.

Disclaimer #2

This Year 9 class has been together for three years, so they know each other well. The school divides their roll into three self-contained vertical hubs so they effectively operate as three small schools within a school. A strong sense of group identity had been developed. There was no doubt that this was another contributing factor.

The learning was varied: extension cards, colorful problem cards, class exercises (even a task sheet) and student choice. A flow of learning where there were elements of direct instruction and monitoring alongside choice and self-paced work. This must have been the norm, as the students flowed between these activities seamlessly.

I will finish with two further comments from the classes. The first, a student who was finding the activity challenging, said, "That was hard as a single problem and now we've got a whole sheet to do now, oh this is going to be so hard.” He persevered.

At the start of the lesson the teacher was talking about an assessment point later in the week, “But don’t worry we’ve got this, we know all of this.”

High expectation and high trust.

So, if collaboration is the coming together to work together to create something new, a new understanding - then this was truly a collaborative learning space. It was also a warm space where math was fun, shared and energetic.

Keen to promote and teach your students collaboration? This resource may help, Collaborative Kickstarter.

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